Power is a fascinating and terrifying subject. I’ve stumbled upon some insights which I’m pretty sure aren’t original to me, but I’m not going to let that stop me from declaring them a law and naming them after myself.
LeBlanc’s First Law of Power Any time an organization acquires power, the organization stops being about its original mission and starts being about the acquisition and maintenance of power.
People sometimes get this idea that “If only some disinterested party X were in charge, they would work better than the cretins and sociopaths running things now.”
This is a good idea in theory, except it assumes that “disinterested party X” will remain the same once they were in charge. This is never the case. There’s a certain kind of person who A) has a nose for where power is and B) is willing to do what it takes to acquire that power.
Generally the kinds of people who are interested in power are a lot more likely to end up running things than the people who just want to keep their heads down and get their jobs done. And once they get control over the organization, they begin to steer it towards its expansion (regardless of whether or not it’s already big enough) and increasing its influence.
A classic example of this is the Catholic church in the Renaissance. While ostensibly about preserving the spiritual welfare of the faithful, it became the most powerful organization in Europe. And you ended up with Popes like Alexander VI, who had many faults but being overly concerned about his flock’s immortal souls is not one of them.
Or take the various revolutionaries, in France, in the Soviet Union, in China. The kinds of people who infested those organizations tended to be way less about creating a classless society and more about having the power to have someone executed. For the good of the Revolution, of course.
This is never a stable situation, though. Since there was some mission, some reason the organization became powerful in the first place. Once it loses that, when the organization falters, the power-seeking people abandon the place and the next generation fails to take their place.
Which brings us to…
LeBlanc’s Second Law of Power: Any organization dedicated to power will only be useful as long as it’s powerful.
Let’s say, for instance, the powerful organization is a large automaker. We’ll call this organization General Cars or GC. And through a combination of design genius, groundbreaking marketing — effectively inventing the concept of the brand as we know it — GC became a colossus.
Given a certain size, it purchased — or demanded — the ear of people in government, and used that influence to insulate itself from competitive pressure. And young, ambitious people wanting to make a career for themselves begin to fill the ranks and work their way into management.
But ultimately, this can only last as long as it continues to make cars that people want to buy, and convincing the people to buy them at a decent price. If one day the company starts hitting hard times, you suddenly discover the people running the place really have no idea how to turn the place around, since they didn’t get to where they are by understanding the car-buying public or designing kickass vehicles but by learning how to climb the GC corporate ladder.
And as GC management beings to retire, the next generation is not there to fill their ranks, since no sane person under the age of 50 considers GC to be a plum place to work. They’re all out in Silicon Valley. And a death spiral ensues.
Although I suspect a similar dynamic is unfolding in Silicon Valley as well. Ten years ago, a place like Google had a ton of money and was working on the coolest things in town. Consequently, it filled up with very smart people who wanted to work with other very smart people on cool things.
But now, every Organization Kid emerging from the bowels of the Ivy League wants to work for Google. Not so much because they want to work on cool things but because it’s the place to be. I would suspect some number of them make it. And what was the last really cool thing Google made?
I would imagine something similar is happening at Apple, which, unless I’m mistaken, is losing its mojo. Maybe the iWatch will jump-start things. Or maybe it’ll one day be known as the “Newton for the wrist”.
I suppose we shall see.
A brief digression on the nature of power
Power is the ability to bend reality to conform to your idea of how things ought to work. Someone once likened power to the eponymous Ring in Lord of the Rings. It seduces you; it tells you what you want to hear. Sometimes it outright lies to you. But once you have it, you’ll do whatever you can to keep it.
And maybe you think you’re like Samwise, that you can handle the power and not let yourself go full Gollum.
The thing with power, it doesn’t advertise its existence, and people who have it don’t always walk around letting everyone know about it. At least not in this country. You’ll hear really benign phrases like “make a difference” or maybe “make the world a better place”.
But… make a difference for whom? Who gets to decide if the world is getting “better” or what’s justified to get it there?
Or perhaps you’ll hear someone wanting to “hold people in power accountable”. But again, who is to be held accountable? Who gets to decide what the criteria for accountability is? Accountable to whom, exactly? “The People”? Who gets to decide what “The People” ought to be caring about?
And at the risk of being pedantic, all organizations need power. GC needs the power to get inside the brain of someone in the car-buying public. I’m talking about general power-for-power’s-sake.